Rona Halsall is a bestselling psychological thriller author.
We had a lockdown chat about Rona’s writing process and journey to becoming an author.
Firstly, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed! I know how busy everyone is at the moment. So, how did you start writing? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
I always enjoyed creative writing at school – I was the girl who did other people’s English homework for them – and then creative writing had to make way for work.
I was a business mentor for twenty-five years, so it still involved a lot of writing – reports, grant applications, strategies and business plans. In the back of my mind I always had the dream of one day writing a book, then I got to fifty, my kids were teenagers and I decided if I was ever going to do it, now was the time. I struggled to work out what genre I wanted to write and faffed about for ages trying to work out plots but nothing was coming together so one night, when I had some time to myself, I just started writing and let the story evolve.
So is that a process you still use – letting the story evolve? Or do you start with an outline or anything?
I found out that letting a story evolve doesn’t really lead to a good structure and then fixing things takes a lot of unpicking, chopping bits out, moving things round and is a complete pain the arse! My first book took a lot of editing and I decided that I could do a better job of the next one if I had an idea of the ending at the very least!
Working with an editor has been fabulous for me and I know my writing is improving with each book. We’ve got a system going now where I do a detailed outline before I start writing. We go through it a few times until we’re happy with plot, characters and backstory, and pacing. It’s so much easier changing things from a six-page outline than it is editing a 95,000 word book and I like the fact that everything is movable at this stage. Then I break the outline into chapters, with a couple of bullet points for each as to the main events. Once that’s done, I get cracking with a first draft. No real editing at this stage, I just blast it out as I find that’s the best way to get a flow to the story. I do tend to veer from the outline in places when my characters start misbehaving, but the structure and pacing is set.
That’s really interesting. Sounds like you do a lot of work before sitting down to write the novel itself – same as me to be honest. As you say editing an outline is much easier than editing a book. So are there points where you might deviate from the outline, or possibly change the ending, once you start?
With my latest book, a new character appeared out of the blue and took control of certain parts of the storyline where there had obviously been something missing. But she fits in so well!
The outline is merely a set of points for me to reach and how I reach them does tend to deviate a little as I get to know the characters better and the backstories are fleshed out – or changed even. I think with psychological thrillers, the skill is in hiding things from the reader but leaving clues. As the writer you can’t really know how well that’s working. Once I have editor and beta reader feedback I usually have to tweak things to make the story work better. That has sometimes meant changing the ending. I’m really open to making changes and as I’m all about creating the best reading experience. When I was writing my sixth book, I got to the last 25% and decided it was a bit lame, so then I deviated from the outline.
Yes, I agree, with psychological thrillers a lot of it is about giving the audience enough – but not too much – information. I often wonder if I’m being too explicit or too subtle about things, and as you say it’s often at the beta reader/editor stage that we get more feedback on that. When foreshadowing becomes telegraphing it becomes a bit of an issue…
So in terms of being published, what was you process in finding a publisher?
My process in finding a publisher was pretty traditional. I decided I wanted to work with an agent because I wanted some rigorous editing as much as anything. I also didn’t want to have to deal with any negotiations as I’m a total pushover.
The first book I wrote I subbed to agents, but nobody was interested, so I started another book. I met a literary agent at the local literary festival and pitched to her. She said she’d work with me on my story and suggested we turn it from a mystery/romance into a psych thriller. Her input was brutal, but just what I needed to up my game. At the end of 9 months she decided that she wasn’t passionate enough about the story and our working relationship ended. However, she’d given me pointers as to what she didn’t like, so I worked to fix those issues.
Then I decided I was ready for submissions. I was a bit more savvy by this time and picked out five agencies I’d like to work with. I sent off my submissions on a Friday morning and went out to have lunch with my book club friends. When I came back there was an email from my top choice agency, Madeleine Milburn, who asked for a full manuscript. A few weeks later they signed me up. They subbed to digital publishers as they felt that was a good place to start my career and a few weeks later I had an offer from Bookouture. I am now about to start writing book seven with them.
I love being with a digital publisher. I’m not a patient person so I enjoy the speed of it and being an expert procrastinator, deadlines work well for me!
I often think I’d like an agent to deal with negotiations as I’m not exactly ruthless. I think I’d be better off with someone who can play hardball for me as I’m just no good at it..! It’s interesting the literary agent you met at the festival helped you turn a mystery/romance novel into a psychological thriller. How did you find the process of changing genre like that? It seems like quite a fundamental shift.
To be honest, it was exciting to think I might be able to write a psychological thriller as these are my favourite genre!
Initially, I’d thought I wouldn’t have the patience or skill to plot a twisty story and assumed romance would be easier to write. Turns out you have to have a few romantic bones in your body to do a romantic story justice…
Anyway, it was a challenge I relished and as I read LOADS of psychological thrillers, I instinctively knew what the reader was looking for. Once I’d started, I had so much fun with it, but it was basically a complete re-write.
That’s funny, as I’m the opposite – I’m happy writing psychological thrillers but reckon I’d have trouble with romance! OK, so moving on to more of the business side of things, how do you promote your books? How are you finding the ‘fun’ that is book marketing?!
Lol – I did have trouble with romance!
In terms of promotion – I leave most of that to my publisher. I do have an author facebook page where I generally post about my books and my genre. I love running giveaways so that’s probably my main promo activity. I also tweet about my books and have recently started on insta. I’ve done a couple of author lives on facebook and those have been fun, so I think I’ll do a bit more of that in the future. I’ve also decided to get myself an author website, so I’m just starting work on that.
Yes, live or in-person stuff is generally more fun. I’ve ‘attended’ a couple of book groups online which has been weird, but at the same time a really nice way to connect with readers.
So, coming back to writing, when you begin to finish one book do you know what the next one will be? Or do you take some time in between projects?
I work on two book contracts and will have the outlines for both books finalised before I start so it’s a cycle that goes something like this… Write book one. While that’s off for structural edits, I’ll think about how to structure book 2 and work out a rough chapter plan – I never stick to this, but it’s a good guide as to the main plot points and where they’ll happen!
Then I get edits back for book 1, so go back to work on that. When that goes to my editor for line edits, I’ll start writing book 2 and carry on with this pattern – writing book 2 between edits and proof-reading for book 1. Then it gets to a stage where book 1 is finished and when I have gaps in edits for book 2, I’ll start working on new ideas for the next contract.
Do you find it difficult transitioning from book 1 and 2 in that way? Or is it Fairly easy switching between the two?
It’s definitely tricky getting out of the heads of one set of characters and replacing them with another. It’s only possible with a good few weeks between edits.
Yes, I can imagine it might be tricky. I guess it’s just about adapting to it as a process. So what advice would you have for anyone wanting to write a novel?
There’s so much advice out there already, but I think you don’t understand what it really means until you’ve had a go and have something to work with. So I’d say, just get writing. Don’t think you need a whole plot. Start playing around with scenes and dialogue and characters. Get words on the page.
That’s generally my advice for anything new – just do it and see what happens! So, lastly, what are some of your favourite books and authors? Fiction or non-fiction if you like.
Wow, that’s a tricky one – it changes all the time as I find new authors.
But I’m trying different genres and have been enjoying historical fiction – The Foundling by Stacey Halls was so emotive and compelling. I also love a dystopian future – Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is one of my top reads. I love the simplicity and power of Suzanne Collins series, The Hunger Games. M R Carey is a favourite and I’ve just started reading some Stephen King. Sometimes I need a heart-warming romance to cleanse the palette between psychological thrillers and have really enjoyed The Flat Share and The Switch by Beth O’Leary.
That’s a really nice mix there. I enjoyed The Hunger Games series too, I think that’s the first YA I’ve ever read – including when I actually was a YA!
Well, it’s been great speaking with you Rona, thanks again for the interview!
Well I enjoyed chatting to you Angelo, best of luck with your writing and thanks for asking me to do the interview.
You can find Rona Halsall at: